OKLAHOMA CITY — After Oklahoma City was eliminated from last season’s NBA Finals, James Harden wanted to let the team’s fans know something. He said that the Thunder are building a dynasty and that he wanted to be part of it.
Five months later, that building plan no longer includes the reigning sixth man of the year.
While the majority of the state had its attention focused on college football and the matchup between Oklahoma and Notre Dame Saturday night, Thunder General Manager and Vice President Sam Presti traded Harden to Houston for Kevin Martin, rookie Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick. It was a move that caught the Thunder fan base off guard, but one Presti said was made to ensure a strong future.
“The challenges of sustaining success are a lot more stringent that those of achieving success,” Presti said. “We’re not immune to that. What we will do is continue to operate as a team on the core principles and values that we’ve established since 2008 and make our decisions based on those, with the franchise first in mind. We’re confident in that process.”
Oklahoma City needed to sign Harden to an extension by midnight Wednesday or he would become a restricted free agent at the end of the summer. Presti knew his team would be in the same position Denver, Cleveland and Orlando were in with Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwight Howard. A circus like atmosphere would surround a team that prides itself on no drama.
According to Presti, he made one last offer to Harden Friday. It’s reported to have been a 4-year deal worth between $52-$55 million. Once it was turned down, it was time to go in a different direction.
“We wanted to give it every opportunity and I feel like we did,” Presti said. “We were also very transparent throughout the process and when we had to make that decision we made yet another effort to stave that off and when that wasn’t possible we had to move forward and turn the page. It wasn’t easy to let any of the guys go. Because as I said before, once you’re a member of the Thunder, you’re in.”
Harden now joins a Houston squad that was gutted last year as it tried to open cap space to sign a big name free-agent like Howard. Instead they signed Jeremy Linn away from the New York Knicks.
More than likely the Rockets will offer Harden the maximum deal he seems to have wanted. It could amount to $60 million over five years.
“To be secure, I feel like I’m in a great position with a great team, young guys who want to work hard,” Harden told USA Today. “It (the extension) will work itself out. I’ll let them figure it out, them and my agent. My focus now is on Houston and how to make them better.”
Even though Presti said he let Harden know that the team would be looking to trade him if he didn’t accept their final offer, the 24-year old must not have believed it.
“It happened so fast, it happened very fast,” Harden said. “But this is the position I’m in now. I just have to make the best out of it. I’m with Houston now. I just have to come in here and play hard and win games.”
Not only was Harden shipped to Houston, the Thunder also sent Cole Aldrich, Daequan Cook and Lazar Hayward along with him.
In return, Oklahoma City gets a veteran guard in Martin, who, for his career, averaged 18.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, and the 20-year-old Lamb, who Presti said has potential but is a work in progress.
“I think about adding Kevin and Jeremy to this group, and it’s exciting to me,” Presti said. “I think those guys add to what it is that we had in place and what we had in place is a very competitive group of people… I thought about the fact that we’re adding two quality players coming in to a group of guys that are really invested in what it is that we’re trying to do here and take a lot of pride in playing for the Thunder.”
Oklahoma City has undergone major overhaul. The team that will take the floor Thursday in the 2012-13 season opener in San Antonio will have a different look than the one that walked off the floor in Miami after the NBA Finals.
But that doesn’t mean the franchise’s goal of winning a NBA title has been altered.
“I think that every team coming into the season should feel that way,” Presti said. “We’re no different. With the group that we have, they’ve been through a lot together. They’ve won a lot of games together.
“For us, of course, we’re always going to feel like we have a chance to do good things. However, I would also add that it’s never been our approach to do a lot of talking about what it is we’re going to do or who we are. I think we’re at the point as a franchise, where we have to do what we say.”
Michael KinneyFollow me @email@example.com